The Politics Behind the Drafting of the Balfour Declaration

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A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.
A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.Credit: Uriel Cohen

“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a centre of Jewish culture.” Had it been up to British-Jewish lawmaker Sir Philip Magnus, that would have been the formulation of the Balfour Declaration, which was published 99 years ago this week and paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel.

Magnus was among the Jewish leaders canvassed by the British government regarding the suggested declaration, a few weeks before it was eventually published on November 2, 1917. But unlike some of his fellow peers in Britain’s Jewish community, Magnus was not an enthusiastic Zionist. He saw Britain – and not the Land of Israel – as his national home.

The fascinating correspondence between Magnus and the British government concerning the declaration is stored at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Until now, no one showed much interest in it. Recently, though, ahead of the declaration’s upcoming centenary, Dr. Hezi Amiur discovered the letters anew. The curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library regards his find as like unearthing a great treasure: “It’s just one of the millions of items preserved here, but I rubbed my eyes when I read it,” he said.

As Amiur discovered, the letter was part of a chain of correspondence and talks conducted at the time between the British and leading Jews – some of whom were Zionists and some not – concerning the final version of the declaration.

Some may consider this to be irrelevant and outdated, while for others renewed discussion of the Balfour Declaration – mainly because of the Palestinian Authority’s threat to sue Britain over it – has stimulated new interest in the original process, even 99 years after the fact.

Various drafts and formulations of the declaration began to change hands in the summer of 1917, when there were feverish discussions at the Zionist Federation about how to get the best version of the declaration from the British.

Various versions were written by the Federation, many ideas exchanged and finally, on July 13, 1917, a draft was signed that centered on the “establishment of an integral Palestine as a Jewish state and as a national home for the Jewish people.”

In this version, the Zionist leaders emphasized that “a Jewish state did not mean a state in which the citizens would be only Jews, but rather that its dominant national character would, with the fulfillment of the founders’ hopes, be Jewish in the way that the dominant national character of England is English, of Canada – Canadian and of Australia – Australian.”

Lord Balfour in 1930. Credit: AP

The British, however, did not respond positively to the Zionists’ request and in October 1917, in the draft sent to a number of Jewish leaders – among them Magnus – there was no mention of an attempt to Judaize all of Palestine.

Creating vagueness

Every word in this October draft is important. Every nuance has significance and eventually led to disputes that have yet to be settled: “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish Race.”

A “national home” – and not a state, as the Zionists had wanted. The choice of the term “national home” was intentional. “National home,” explained Amiur, “does not have a clear and binding meaning.” The choice of this term, he said, was aimed at creating vagueness regarding the purpose of the country.

The term “Jewish race” that appeared in this draft was also no accident, even if it was ultimately dropped in favor of “Jewish people” in the final version.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, an Israel Prize laureate for political science, said that in the 19th century it was customary to use the word “race” in a neutral sense, similar to the word “people” – and without the baggage we’re aware of nowadays. According to Avineri, the British officials who used the word “race” in the first third of the 20th century were possibly unaware of the new negative connotations the word was acquiring.

Why, though, was the word “race” changed to “people” in the final version? Avineri suggests that Jewish leaders, and also perhaps non-Jewish liberals, initiated the change in order to distance the language from racist positions that at that time were already identified with right-wingers and anti-Semitic parties.

In any event, Magnus didn’t like the draft the British government sent him, since he believed the Jews had no shared national aspirations – and certainly not in the Land of Israel – whether as a race or a people. He believed that, after the Roman conquest of Palestine, the Jewish people had ceased to be a political entity. For him, the only thing Jews in different countries had in common was their religion. “I cannot agree that the Jews regard themselves as a nation. A national home for the Jewish race seems to me both undesirable and inferentially inaccurate,” he said.

The Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917.

As an alternative, he proposed the following formulation: “The establishment in Palestine of a centre of Jewish culture.”

Amiur mentions in this context the spiritual Zionism conceived by Ahad Ha’am (aka Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg), who claimed that the Land of Israel was not a solution to the existential question of Jews as individuals, but rather to the spiritual and cultural problem of the Jewish people.

For Magnus, however, this was not enough. He warned the government that if it wanted to declare its willingness for “a national home in Palestine” for the Jews – and for Jews alone – this could be interpreted as British support for transferring the governance of the land into Jewish hands. In this scenario, warned Magnus, violence would most likely break out in the region. To reinforce his argument that the Jews didn’t have a right to a “national home,” Magnus tried to diminish the value of the Zionist movement and described it as a relatively new entity that had arisen only because the Jews of Russia didn’t enjoy equal rights and weren’t allowed to observe their religious customs.

“The Jews of Spain and Portugal, at the height of their prosperity, made no attempt to use their influence to secure for themselves a ‘national home in Palestine.’ Nor did they subsequently, when they fled from Spain to Holland and to other countries,” he wrote.

Further on in his letter, he called upon the British government to consult with the “existing inhabitants of Palestine [i.e. the Arabs] as to the ruling power under which they would desire to live” and “hold the balance fairly between the Christians, Jewish and Mahommedan communities.”

Magnus failed to convince the British to adopt the term “centre of Jewish culture,” but he can take credit for influencing the final version of the Balfour Declaration, which included extensive clarifications to the effect that establishing a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel would not violate the civil rights of Jews in other countries. “In this regard, the government acceded to the request of the opponents of Zionism, among them Magnus,” said Amiur.

‘The world’s ghetto’

The anti-Zionist positions held by Magnus were shared by a more senior British-Jewish politician, Edwin Samuel Montagu (a cousin of Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner of Palestine). Montagu, who was appointed as secretary of state for India that same year, sent a memorandum to the British government on August 23, 1917, in which he tried to prevent the publication of the Balfour Declaration on the grounds that it was an anti-Semitic document and would be harmful both to Jews and Muslims.

A special Academy of Art and Design work perpetuating the Balfour Declaration.Credit: GPO

“I fear that my protest comes too late,” wrote Montagu. “But I do feel that as the one Jewish minister in the Government, I may be allowed by my colleagues an opportunity of expressing views which may be peculiar to myself, but which I hold very strongly and which I must ask permission to express when opportunity affords.”

He went on enumerate the dangers inherent in granting a national home to the Jewish people in Palestine. Topping the list was his fear that the nations of the world would expel the Jews living within their borders and deny them their rights, saying that because they now had a home of their own, they should move there. “Palestine will become the world’s ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine,” wrote Montagu.

Montagu also declared: “I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less [sic] degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.”

He also warned of the fate awaiting Arabs living in Palestine upon its becoming a “national home” for the Jewish people. “I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.”

Ultimately, on November 2, 1917, at the conclusion of several months of contacts between the British government and the Zionist delegation headed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann (who would become the first president of Israel), British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour gave Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, the famous declaration that begins: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The actual Balfour Declaration, which is regarded as the founding document that paved the way for the state’s establishment, is not even kept in Israel. In 1924, Rothschild was asked whether the original letter Balfour sent him was in his possession. He replied that because of its historical significance, he had seen fit to entrust it to a place where it would be well preserved: the British Museum. It now sits in the British Library, in London.

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